Cricket: Hurt Wasim warns of a mass walkout

Stephen Fay talks to Pakistan's captain as the fix claims persist
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The Independent Online
WASIM AKRAM says that, only now, is he beginning to recover from Pakistan's humbling eight-wicket defeat in the World Cup final at Lord's five weeks ago. But the hurt and anger are still smouldering. He can conceive the possibility of a threat of mass resignation by his young team if the torrent of abuse in Lahore does not stop. Wasim is confident that he will be cleared of match-fixing allegations, but a seed of doubt has lodged in his mind about the future of his captaincy.

Defeat in the final resurrected the hysteria that intermittently envelops Pakistan cricket. Match-fixing allegations were revived. At home, wild allegations about fixing the final no less, as well as an earlier game against Bangladesh, were commonplace. Pakistan's anti- corruption police were reported to have observed Ijaz Ahmed in a casino in the small hours before the final. A couple of the young players had telephoned Wasim from Pakistan to tell him they were afraid. "It's all very unsettling for me," says Wasim mournfully.

He is at Lord's learning to eradicate the "ums" and "ahs" from his Test match commentary for Channel 4. Between turns in the box, Wasim put up his feet - elegantly shod in brown suede shoes - and recalled the highlights and horrors of the Cup campaign and its aftermath.

The decisive image of Wasim after Australia had effortlessly knocked off the 133 runs required was of a good loser, shaking hands with his opponents and smiling at the crowd, but only a few minutes earlier he had gone alone into the toilet, wrapped two towels around his head and shouted: "I don't know for how many minutes, but I had to take out my temper and my sorrow."

Looking back, Wasim does not regret the decision to bat first, which appears, in retrospect, to have been a critical error. The night before, he says, the decision to bat first was taken at the strategy meeting of senior players and management. "It's not me indiscriminately making the decision," he says. Wasim adds that Pakistan had batted first against the West Indies at Bristol and won, as if that acquits him of the error.

So, why the catastrophe? "I wish I knew. One thing I know is they have given their 100 per cent. A couple of young boys freeze maybe. The Inzamam decision [caught behind] was a big mistake." But Wasim is a fatalist: "We believe in our religion that, whatever happens, happens for the best. Maybe God didn't want us to win." It wasn't God that caused the loss to Bangladesh: "We were over-confident. The whole team was. I'm not going to tell you what happened in the dressing-room, but I had a go at every one of them, and in front of everyone. And they were embarrassed."

Wasim blames gambling for the fact that supporters at home were less philosophical about defeat. "Everyone in Pakistan now gambles, even though it is against our religion. Whenever they lose, they have nothing else to blame it on. They can't blame themselves. They're not brave enough. The first thing to do is finish the gambling mafia in Pakistan. People bet on telephones. They just have to tap the telephones. You go for them instead of having a go at the Pakistan team. They're a hot-blooded, hot- tempered nation, but things are getting worse all the time. They have to realise that it's only a game. If they don't want the present team, all of them should just say that the pressure's too much, and we can't play any more. But that's what they don't want. It would be embarrassing for them, and the country."

Is Wasim serious about mass defection?

"If things are going that way, it might happen."

Had he discussed it with the team?

"No, I haven't yet. But definitely the boys are ready whenever I want to do something. They're ready with me because I have a feel for the boys. They work hard. They play with injuries."

Wasim notes that Moin Khan, the keeper, played the World Cup with a broken finger, and that, last winter, he had discovered Shoaib Akhtar injecting himself with three pain-killing shots in the knee to overcome a niggle. (How different, he implied, from the home life of Alex Tudor, our own young speed merchant, though that may be just as well.)

Another of the team's woes is the report of Ijaz Ahmed's preparation for the Cup final. Leaks from the government's anti-corruption squad - there's an oxymoron - suggest that it took place in a casino. "I think Ijaz should sue the papers. As far as my knowledge is concerned, he went out three days before the final. As a captain, myself and the management had to make sure that every boy was in bed before the game; 11pm was the curfew. But if we have days off, the boys can go anywhere to release their pressure. It's not a school team."

His own uncertainty involves the captaincy. He has spoken to the acting chairman of the Pakistan board who tells him the team needs to restore its confidence. "He said I should come back to Pakistan when I had the time to discuss the allegations. We have to finish them off, kill them, not just for the sake of myself, but for the future of Pakistan cricket."

But is the captaincy safe?

"I don't know. I'm not the guy who should think about it. It's people who've seen your performance as captain; they should do the thinking. Believe me, I never wanted the captaincy. If they say 'We don't want you as captain', I say 'fair enough'."

That is hard to believe. After the ritual confrontation with India in Toronto in September (it is still on), Pakistan go to Australia this winter for a three-Test series. "It'll be fun. Can't wait. We want to give it back to them," Wasim says. Earlier he explained how he preached to his brilliant young players about the value of the Australians' belief in themselves. "They never lose hope. That's what I'm there to tell the Pakistan players. If I don't, nobody will."

This is not the language of a retiring captain.